Let’s say you’re a greasy-haired young man of the 1930s, on the cusp of completing your Ivy League studies in veterinary medicine (which is apparently animal doctoring and not war fighter doctoring), when tragedy strikes. Your whole life is stolen away. Your first instinct is to hop on the first train out of town, right?
Of course it is.
That’s exactly what happens to young Jacob (Robert Pattinson) in Water For Elephants. He loses his parents (the only family he has) and jumps aboard a train in the dark of night only to find out he’s accidentally joined the circus. He proves his worth enough to stay by impressing the iron-fisted ring master August (Christoph Waltz), but he ends up impressing August’s wife, Marlena (Reese Witherspoon), a bit too much, and the elephant pile gets higher just in time for the company to buy an elephant meant to save all of them.
There’s also a framing device at work here featuring an old man (Hal Holbrook being a genius in under 20 lines of dialog) who is wandering around in a circus parking lot. When he’s brought inside, he tells his story of love, loss, and elephant water. There’s a clever use of voice over as a bridge between the modern storytelling and the bulk of the action as it plays out in 1931, but unfortunately the voice over continues. It, like most narration, either says exactly what’s happening on screen or informs an emotion that the filmmakers should have found a way to show. If the voice over were erased from the print, the movie would be better for it.
Directed by Francis Lawrence in a departure from ruining sci-fi/fantasy tales, this film is a beautiful exploration of becoming an upstanding man in the face of troubled times. It’s a standard forbidden love story, and as such, the danger is very real.
That danger is Christoph Waltz. What he does with the role makes him far scarier when he’s smiling than when he’s exploding with rage. He exists as a constant bi-polar threat who happens to employee a trio of bulky bruisers who don’t bother to ask questions. Waltz is quietly incendiary in a role that calls for the slow reveal of how truly mentally disturbed our dear ring master is. He goes from cocky to in need of anger management to revolting along the rails, but far from being a stock villain, he’s a man under the immense pressure of running a slavish business during a depression. He tosses good men off the train to avoid being tossed off himself, and his showmanship sticks around long after the rubes have gone home.
It’s a shame that his intensity (emboldened by his silent and screaming moments alike) couldn’t be matched by the rest of the film. Water For Elephants is injured by pacing problems that are exacerbated when a couple of slow motion montages set to tinkling piano keys takes over. Instead of doing the hard work to make calm moments compelling, Lawrence and company rely on short cuts that feel not so much delicately utilized on the screen as they feel ripped wantonly out of a copy of How To Make A Serious Moment in a Movie For Dummies.
It doesn’t help that Robert Pattinson looks constantly sedated. There are a few moments that show he’s got some spark to him, but he never pulls his character out of the sorrow left by the loss of his parents. That’s arguably an appropriate role choice, but there are definitely times when happiness could have taken over and snapped him back from the dead. At the very least, no one will ever seriously accuse Pattinson of being a ham.
Fortunately, when it comes to the knight in shining armor act, he’s more than capable. Jacob takes a beating in this movie, and Pattinson manages to keep the character strong and unthinkingly brave despite continually landing in the stuff he starts his circus career shoveling. Reese Witherspoon (proving that she would have made a fantastic silent era star) does the heavy lifting when it comes to chemistry, playing her married woman almost always a few inches away from Jacob’s lips. Their relationship is played to the height of anxiety, playing it fast, loose and dangerous with August and his temper almost only a few feet away.
The acting disparity comes from two Oscar winners playing against a young talent who (when he’s not drunkenly cross-dressing or getting pies in the face for a few seconds) is sadly so one-note that Witherspoon’s and Waltz’s dynamism overtakes him. It’s not that Pattinson is bad here, it’s just that he’s not as great as Witherspoon or Waltz.
The other main flaw of the film is its pacing. The pieces of the story’s puzzle are put together expertly, and Jacob finds himself getting out of trouble almost always when he’s getting into more, but there are moments (without piano tinkling) where the film stops dead in its train tracks with nowhere to go. There’s a breathing bomb living in the main tent, but even his threatening existence isn’t enough to keep the flow going when it hits the doldrums. That’s a fancy way of saying that it gets boring. Frankly, there are only two moments when this happens, but when it does, it stings.
The production design is bathed in rustic and ready colors – the fading reds and yellows on painted wooden train cars, the vibrant black-tie of depression era speakeasy culture, the flower print dresses of small town summer. It’s a truly gorgeous movie to behold, and the camera acts equally as spectator and voyeur as it peaks behind tent flaps and curtains not quite shut. During the first scene on top of the train as it rushes through the night, August challenges the audience by way of asking Jacob, “It takes your breath away, doesn’t it?” Yes, yes it does. The camera work here is laudable and remains thrilling even when the other elements of the film don’t pull their weight. On the downside, the style takes the large bombast of the circus and reduces it to airy, flighty nothingness. You’ve never seen more dully presented circus acts than in this movie. The camera is less to blame than the music choices and the lack of active editing.
The movie’s saving grace is the complexity of the relationships. Everything in the circus world is built on illusion, and the sly moments where understated underhandedness comes into play are bits of sheer joy. The workers and performers are just as suspicious of outsiders as they are protective of their own. They’re a family. A fierce one with tigers in tow, but a family nonetheless. They round out the cast with lovable/despicable character actors like the effortless intimidating Ken Foree and Jim Norton as the moonshine-swilling father figure called Camel.
Speaking of exotic animals, Rosie The Elephant (who you may remember from Operation Dumbo Drop and Exit Through The Gift Shop) is a great mirror for Jacob – a character much smarter than she looks (yet far more animated). The two share a sweet bond even as August’s philosophy becomes more bold: if you care so much for animals, then you haven’t seen men suffer. It’s true of Jacob, but as he falls deeper in love with the circus and with August’s wife, he witnesses the true grit of the Depression. Whereas August sees Rosie as both his savior and another beast to conquer, Jacob has to prove that showing humanity in the face of missing paychecks and low food supplies is the true way to salvation.
In the final analysis, Water for Elephants is a good period piece with a strong story and complex acting from 2/3rds of the leads. It gets in its own way a few times when it comes to its soporific portrayal of something naturally exciting, but it’s a love story told with bare knuckles by the end. Aside from a couple of factors that drag it down, the majority of the film is enjoyable for its look and its relationships.
The Upside: Strong acting, Robert Pattinson almost holds his own, vivid imagery, an intriguing story, cool elephant tricks, carnies, and a powder keg of a performance from Christoph Waltz
The Downside: Bad voice over, Robert Pattinson doesn’t hold his own, a few slow moments set to cliched music, outright stalls in the story
On the Side: Andrew Garfield and Channing Tatum auditioned for the role of Jacob, Sean Penn was set to play August at one point, and Scarlett Johansson turned down the role of Marlena.